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Andreas Scholl at Wigmore Hall

Strikes on the London Underground system may have made this a particularly exhausting and exasperating week for Londoners, but despite these wearing adversities Friday evening saw an eager crowd flock to the Wigmore Hall, in excited anticipation of an inspiring and invigorating blend of the familiar and the unfamiliar — and they were not disappointed.

Andreas Scholl at Wigmore Hall

Andreas Scholl countertenor. Shield of Harmony: Crawford Young lute, director; Kathleen Dineen voice harp; Margit Übellacker dulce melos; Marc Lewon vielle, lute, checker. Wigmore Hall, London.

Above: Andreas Scholl


Scholl’s exquisite tonal beauty and superb clarity of diction are well-known to, and relished by, lovers of song, and both were much in evidence here. But few in the audience can have been familiar with the songs of the fifteenth-century German composer, Oswald von Wolkenstein, or with the startling timbral blend of the voices and instruments of the ensemble, Shield of Harmony — although after this stunning performance there is no doubt they will be eager for more.

Oswald von Wolkenstein was a poet, musician, nobleman and diplomat. An aristocrat, he was deeply involved in the political events of his time; moreover, travels in Europe, from the early age of 10, exposed him to an eclectic range of musical influences. In particular he absorbed the sophistications and developments of French song and incorporated troubadour idioms from the Romance languages into the German court context, revolutionising the German tradition.

His songs reflect the variety of his life; indeed, mimicking the songs of the early troubadours, they provide an autobiographical passage through his travels, exploits, loves and careers, spiced with philosophical ruminations, political observations and humorous drolleries. Typical of the period, the sacred blended subtly with the sexual. This recital presented a variety of forms, long narratives interspersed with shorter lyrics and instrumental solos.

Scholl’s enunciation was superlative throughout. Indeed, there is a spoken quality to many of these songs — Spruchdichtung — forming a continuum with Wolkenstein’s poetry, and reflecting the unity of poetry and song in this period. Like a story-teller, Scholl enhanced the narrative effect by occasionally beginning with a spoken introduction which evolved naturally into song - as in ‘Es fuegt sich’ (‘It happened’), whose three parts formed a framework for the recital. Here Scholl deftly recreated Wolkenstein’s character, telling of his travels in distant lands, his musical, mercantile and military accomplishments, and his amorous adventures.

Scholl’s voice was unfailingly sweet and warm, never cloying, and loveliest in the upper range, as in one of the evening’s highlights, ‘Herz, müt, leib’ (‘Heart, mind, body’). His soothed and lured the audience, drawing them into his tale: we celebrated his pride and success - ‘Many a wise man has valued my advice,/ like my tuneful songs’ - and laughed at his mischievous opportunism: ‘Many things then came easily,/ when I wore the monk’s hood,/ in truth, never before or after were girls so friendly, as they listened to my chatter’.

And we experienced the intensity of his passion — his anguish and yearning for transfiguration being worthy of a Schubert lied:

‘When I’m with her, I lose my equilibrium,
because of a woman I must travel a bad road,
into the wilds, until her dislike mercifully vanishes;
if she would help me, my sadness would become bliss.’ (‘Es fuegt sich’, part 2)

Most of Wolkenstein’s songs are monophonic, but Scholl was joined by Kathleen Dineen in two duets, ‘Ach senliches leiden’ (‘Alas heartfelt pain’) and the mesmerising ‘Nu rue mit sorgen’ (‘Now rest from your cares’), in which the exquisite union of these two unaffected voices effortlessly conveyed the erotic charge of the text and the poignancy of loss and pain.

The instrumental pieces provided variety and charm, the players of Shield of Harmony demonstrating considerable rhythmic dexterity and delighting in the complex, simultaneous use of duple and triple rhythms.

So hypnotising was this performance that I suspect many in the audience, like this listener, failed to notice when Scholl slipped effortlessly to a baritone voice for final song.

Scholl and Shield of Harmony demonstrated total mastery of this material: golden voices appropriate to this golden age of German minnesang.

Claire Seymour

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